It takes a determined person to carry on working through the devastating aftermath of a house fire. It takes something more than determination, to record an upbeat song called Bad Luck the day after the event, in a country thousands of miles away from the home you’ve just lost. Yet, this is what Neko Case did during the production of her latest album Hell-On. The album’s cover features a picture of Case, on fire herself, wearing a wig made of cigarettes and she even went on to film a video for the song in a studio set depicting a burnt out living room. In interviews since, Case has been philosophical about the fire, noting that the people and animals she loves are all safe and that her lost possessions are just “stuff”. Case reserves her ire for other, more deserving targets a point she hits home time and again on her new album.
Case’s feminism is very much to the fore in this album and her always poetic, often enigmatic lyrics both uplift the women who have influenced her and detail some of the many injustices borne against both herself and woman kind in general. One example of this, Halls Of Sarah, may also be the best song Case has written in years. “Sarah” is an avatar for the countless women who have been used as muses and “inspiration” by artistic men only to be silenced and dehumanised in the process, whilst female artistic voices have been simultaneously ignored. Moving from tender alt-country to brilliantly anthemic pop-rock, Halls Of Sarah is an absorbing and layered piece of production work and songwriting as well as a powerful social statement.
Hell-On isn’t all, big picture commentary, there is still room here for some more personal stories. My Uncle’s Navy for example chronicles one man’s cruel bullying of Case as a child. Through waves of deep, chorus drenched guitar, Case’s voice doesn’t betray much anger, though her lyrics tell another story. The line “I hated those who gave him access to our days/ the ones who did nothin’/ I still can't love them” which presumably refers to her estranged parents, is delivered with a calmness that renders the emotion in those words even more powerful.
On songs such as Furnace Room Lullaby from the album of the same name, Case has managed to capture a ghostly, ethereal quality that is both compelling and chilling and demonstrated her impressive knack for writing dark, eerie songs. Hell-On’s title track, which opens the album, has some of those qualities and whilst it may not have the same creepy, darkness as Furnace Room Lullaby, Hell-On is a powerful opening statement. The tense, creepy-carnival-esque glockenspiel at the start gives way to Case’s strong, yet soft vocal over a singular strummed guitar. This simple arrangement easily grabs your attention, purely because of how powerfully stark it is.
As she has done with previous albums, Case surrounded herself with trusted collaborators for the production of Hell-On. Laura Veirs and K.D Lang, with whom she made 2016’s case/lang/veirs, make an appearance as does her New Pornographers bandmate A.C Newman. A standout addition is Mark Lanegan on Curse of the I-5 Corridor, which lies somewhere between backing vocals and a duet as his and Case’s voices weave in and out of each other. On Sleep All summer, a Crooked Fingers cover, Case enlists the help of the song’s composer Eric Bachmann. This slow, sad duet is a standout on the album though interestingly, it has more in common with the version recorded by The National and St Vincent a few years ago, than Bachmann’s original.
Neko Case’s reputation as a musician has hinged primarily on her voice. It’s certainly a remarkable instrument and its qualities are almost unique in contemporary music, though I feel it can often overshadow her talent as a songwriter and a producer. Hell-On, however proves to be a showcase for both those skills, with Case’s production choices and arrangements complimenting the songs beautifully. It’s an album that could only be made by someone with a strong idea of what they want to say and the hard-won understanding of their own work and voice that comes with experience. It’s clear that Case has put all she has into this record, even at times where not doing so would be perfectly understandable. The result is a strong and compelling album that demonstrates just how talented Neko Case is.